DAY 11 — The handsome young Chilean reaches for my hand in a desert oasis beside a roaring river and helps me over some rocks. He smiles. “Gracias,” I say.
I’m not dreaming. The handsome, long-haired 29 year old Chilean is Max Vera, who is guiding us on a challenging hike uphill along the canyon floor, scrambling over big rocks, along a sandy trail, in between large “fox tails” that grow in this region and Cacti that are 12 feet high with needles so sharp that local Indian women use them as needles to sew and knit. We’re walking along the River Puritama and the welcoming seven pools of hot springs. We’re south west of San Pedro, he tells us when we stop for apricots and chocolate.
My two daughters, Reg and Mel, and Reg’s boyfriend Dan Foldes are hiking behind us. Whenever we get hot here in the Atacama Desert, we seem to come closer to the coolness of the river. At points we push large green plants apart to find the trail adjacent to the rushing river—truly an oasis in the desert.
The place where we hope to cross the river to the hot springs—our destination—is so high that we climb higher and higher until we find a spot where a small rudimentary bridge has been constructed at a much narrower point.
Max is one of the stellar guides from the 32-room Tierra Atacama (www.tierraatacama.com ) where we are staying in San Pedro. The Atacama region is one of the most visited in Chile and it is easy to see why–the spectacular desert landscape, the chance to hike to an ancient village, the top of a volcano or to spewing geysers, to watch flamingoes amid a glorious sunset. “Ninety percent of the days here are like this,” Max says, gesturing to the sky –blue sky and no clouds.”
I can’t think of a better spot for an adventure with grown or nearly grown children. Jim Harbell, who is from Toronto, tacked on an extra week here with his 21 year old daughter Charlotte after the rest of the family had to decamp after a vacation in Argentina and she begged for an opportunity to visit a place that one of her college friends who had studied in Chile had raved about. “It is so cool. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere with all of the comforts,” he tells me as he finishes a first rate lunch that included goat cheese empanadas, grilled salmon and lentil salad, vegetarian pizza with homemade crust and a mousse made with cherimoya, a local fruit. “The atmosphere is very zen like,” he continues. “And the staff is great there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do for us and that makes all the difference.”
Everyone is so friendly too. We meet a music producer and his wife from Brazil, a couple on their honeymoon from the Netherlands, a young woman traveling on her own from London, some British farmers and at the hot springs, a couple traveling with their two twenty-something kids from New York.
We finish the hike, which took three hours and required us to gain elevation from 8,000 to 9,000 feet. “We get bored on beach vacations,” says 24 year old David Held. “What is the point of travel if you aren’t going to see something?” He and his sister Lauren, 27, besides enjoying traveling in comfort with their parents Susan and Jonathon, also clearly enjoy their company. Why here? The family had never been to South America, Jonathon Held explained. “We wanted something diferent and warm.”
And it certainly is that. The hot springs, which are warm rather than hot, are welcome after the long hike as is the snacks (everything from wine to smoked salmon to cheese and olives) that our guides have laid out. This area, I learn, was developed by the well-known Explora Hotel here in San Pedro and while in the past it was simply natural, here there are some boardwalks and bathrooms that make the experience even more pleasant.
The other thing that is nice is there are levels of excursions based on your ability and desire. For example, some from the hotel simply took a 40 minute ride in a van from the hotel to the hot springs while we hoofed it. This afternoon, when we go to the Sejas Lagoon where we can float in the clear salt water, we can go via bike (about 10 miles) or van. After this morning’s hike, I haven’t decided yet.
Harbell is trying to cram as much into his visit as possible—sand boarding down the huge dunes, star gazing this evening with a French astronomer. One thing is for sure- you won’t get bored here. In fact, there is so much to do, “You’ve got to pick and choose,” he says.
Same goes for the famous pisco sours which come in a variety of flavors including mango and reiki reiki (which plant we see while hiking) and all variety of fresh juices-watermelon or strawberry anybody?